After good starts for three out of the four Offaly representatives in Leinster club competition so far, senior football and hurling champions Edenderry and Coolderry finally get their chance this weekend to get their provincial campaigns off to a good start. Both clubs have to overcome tricky away draws, but neither team is without hope against good but potentially vulnerable opposition.
Edenderry make the relatively short spin down to Newbridge to take on Athy, and while any team that comes out of an extremely competitive Kildare championship has to be respected, Athy are a young team, similar in profile to Edenderry, and they won't have any advantage in terms of experience, as would have been the case if Moorefield, for example, were the opposition. Athy's talismanic defender Mick Foley is away travelling for a couple of months and his absence will be a blow, while minor full-forward Niall Kelly is out through injury, thus robbing the Kildare representatives of one of their most talented young players.
Both sides have had plenty of time to celebrate their domestic success before knuckling down to the real business of preparing for this contest, while the draw has opened the door for either side to make a good run in this event. Old Leighlin, who await the winners of this game, should be respected but neither should they be feared, while Garrycastle are the only club on this side of the draw with meaningful Leinster experience.
For Edenderry, the key to a successful start to this competition will be trying to deploy their usual fast, foot passing style in slow and damp winter conditions. The Reds were flying through the latter stages of the Offaly championship, moving the ball at pace and exploiting the movement of their young forward line, but St Conleth's Park is a full ten metres shorter and ten metres narrower than O'Connor Park, so it will be much more difficult to stretch out the play. Midfield playmakers Basil Malone and Richie Dalton will have to measure their deliveries into tight windows and some patience could be required before chances will begin to present themselves.
Nonetheless this is an Athy team that likes to carry the ball so if Edenderry do sit back and crowd their own defensive area by playing their usual four man forward line, they could keep themselves in contention, and as they proved against Clara in the county final, they have the ability to edge a tight finish. Perhaps their biggest concern will be their lack of goalscoring in recent matches - they'll almost certainly need to score at least one goal to come through this game so there is a huge pressure to take any goal chances that come their way.
The odds narrowly favour a home win, but Edenderry have a better chance than many pundits from outside the county are affording them.
In Parnell Park, Coolderry face off against Ballyboden St Enda's and while they too have a great chance to fly the flag for Offaly with pride, Clonkill's result last week possibly brought the Dubliners back down to earth a little bit, which will do them no harm. Early goals meant that they enjoyed big wins in their Dublin semi-final and final meetings against Lucan Sarsfields and O'Tooles, and with all the hype that currently surrounds Dublin hurling, people were getting carried away with Ballyboden's chances in this competition. Their five championship wins in a row suggests a level of dominance but unlike most Leinster counties, with the exception of Kilkenny, Dublin's strength is spread very evenly across the county. Fourteen clubs were represented in the 2011 Dublin hurling panel, and nine clubs had two or more players in there.
It's true that Ballyboden are a cut above the rest, but the story of Dublin hurling is one where improvement is being made all across the board, rather than concentrated in a few key areas. If the lower ranked senior clubs in Dublin were to play some of the lower ranked senior clubs in Offaly it would be a foregone conclusion but at this level, and with Conal Keaney and Stephen Hiney still out, Coolderry have every chance here.
Coolderry's record in Leinster does leave a lot to be desired, but in the four years that Ballyboden have taken part in this championship, they've only enjoyed one win over a team from Offaly, Wexford or Kilkenny - their 1-17 to 0-15 win over Oulart the Ballagh in 2007. With the big guns still falling from the All-Ireland race - there are now ten teams left and only Ballygunner have won a Munster, Leinster or All Ireland title in the last quarter of a century - it would be easy to get carried away and start thinking about bigger teams. Whichever side keeps their head and focuses on Sunday's battle will be in a great position.
Dedicated McManus gave sterling service
Finally, it would be remiss to let this week's column go by without paying tribute to the career of Ciarán McManus, one of the most dedicated and committed servants to his club, county and indeed country over the course of his career, which in an inter-county context, ended this week.
As a player, Ciarán came onto the inter-county scene at a time when Offaly football was punching way above its weight. In the late 1990s he collected Leinster U-21 and senior medals, as well as a National League medal. Little did he realise that over time, as he was to mature into one of the most influential footballers in the country, Offaly football would decline and waste away into a national sideshow, a huge source of controversy and scandal in the winter but never to be seen in August.
That he continued to maintain his own high standards of preparation and performance even when many of those around him failed to do so speaks volumes about how much he cared about the teams he represented. He watched countless players come and go onto the county scene, several of whom would have been endowed with as least as many natural gifts as the Tubber man, but nobody matched his willingness to go the extra mile, and then do another mile or two after that for good measure.
Many Offaly footballers retired with more medals on their mantelpiece, but very few will live as highly in the esteem of supporters, who could always depend on Ciarán to play with unparalleled intensity and passion, digging deepest when it mattered most.